Looking back, looking forward

Enterprise, Alabama, has a mural of a boll weevil, an insect that devastated the dominant cotton crop and prompted farmers to diversify to other crops such as peanuts. (Photo provided — Larry Roth)

The Cuomo administration’s decision to appeal the ruling that threw out the rail-trail plan is not a surprise; the governor does not handle disappointment well. The Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Transportation and Adirondack Park Agency followed marching orders from Albany to push Alternative 7 through, regardless of the facts and the law, and the law pushed back. It’s difficult to see how the state can prevail, but they’ll spend more time and money that could be better used.

After months of quiet, the Anti Rail Trail Association is re-energized by the appeal, hoping that the fix will finally be in this time. Everything they claimed was debunked in court: They were wrong on title issues, wrong on corridor classification and totally out of bounds on historic preservation. Still, they concede nothing.

Everything they say is aimed at removing rails all the way back to Thendara — so much for “compromise.” They have no new arguments or facts to offer, and no credibility. Their vision is small. Even their insults are getting old and tired — so let’s talk about something new: the past. Too many people are stuck in it.

Go back to the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, etc., to understand where we are today. Railroads were dropping like flies. With the interstate highway system, air travel growth and the loss of post office mail contracts, the cards were systematically stacked against railroads. Decades of road-centric transportation policies decimated railroads — many of them fell by the wayside.

Amtrak was created to preserve a bare minimum of railroad passenger service. Conrail was crammed together to preserve freight rail operations in the Northeast. Surviving railroads merged and gravitated to bulk cargo, the one area where they could compete against the trucking industry and the new highways.

Enterprise, Alabama, has a statue of a boll weevil, an insect that devastated the dominant cotton crop and prompted farmers to diversify to other crops such as peanuts. (Photo provided — Larry Roth)

People of that time were still very aware that the U.S. could not have gotten through World War II without railroads. They wished to preserve the possibility of rail service for strategic reasons. So railbanking was devised to convert bankrupt railroad rights of way into trails — lest they be built over and lost.

Fast-forward to today. There are few people left who still remember when railroads made America great. Most people have no personal experience of how valuable railroads still are. What they’ve grown up with is an image of railroads as obsolete, dangerous dinosaurs. A car-centric world is all they know.

The rails-to-trails movement has turned railbanking inside out — it’s cannibalizing viable rail lines. Its cadres of consultants, advocacy groups, slanted studies and hordes of true believers are aided and abetted by NIMBY forces, the fossil fuel industry, highway interests and the knee-jerk anti-government spending reflex that keeps us from bringing America into the 21st century.

Asia, Europe, China, India, Africa are investing in rail — the rest of the world is leaving us behind. Our highways are built out to the max; we can’t afford to keep them up. Traffic is getting worse, not better. Self-driving cars won’t fix that.

Then there’s climate change. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, there’s nothing more efficient for moving goods and people than steel wheels on steel rails, and they can do even better. The Netherlands uses 100-percent wind power for all its electrified rail (footnote 1). Alstom has a zero-carbon train powered by hydrogen fuel cells (2). It can be done.

Solutionary Rail has a detailed plan to rebuild America’s rail system into a sustainable passenger-freight network through private-public partnerships (3). The Steel Interstate adds getting trucks off the highways to the plan (4). There’s ample precedent. That’s how the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad and the interstate highways were built after all. We did it before; we can do it again.

What does this have to do with the Adirondacks? Restoring the rail line all the way to Lake Placid means reconnecting to everything on the North American rail net and being ready for the changes that are coming. Amtrak ridership is up to new records (5). The Berkshires are seeking seasonal Amtrak connections to grow tourism (6). It’s not just Amtrak, either. Brightline passenger service is getting underway in Florida (7). It’s about having more choices. Railroads are coming back — so why close the door?

Dismissing the Adirondack Scenic Railroad as just a seasonal tourist operation misses the point. It has the potential to do anything any other rail line can do. Close the gap between the Tri-Lakes and the rest of the world — it’ll yield immediate benefits and set the region up for decades to come. Rail trail people like to talk about what a wonderful local amenity the trail will be — but the Tri-Lakes need more than mere amenities — they need transformation.

Consider “snow farming,” aka winter recreation. North Country Public Radio has a great story on how railroads once enabled the Adirondack winter economy (8). They’re doing it today for Winter Park, Colorado (9). The problem is, snow farming depends on having a good “crop” of snow and consistent cold weather. That’s increasingly uncertain. Snow doesn’t fall as often as it used to; it melts faster. Basing the Adirondack economy on snow today is like Alabama in 1915.

Cotton was king, and everyone grew it — until the boll weevil arrived (10). It devastated the area. They were forced to turn to another crop. Within two years they were the leading peanut producers in the U.S. — and doing better than ever. Enterprise, Alabama, has a statue celebrating the boll weevil’s role in their turnaround. They still grow cotton, but it’s not all they do, and they’re better off for it.

Trading the tracks for a trail will only make the Adirondacks more unready for the changes that are coming. Sustainability and resilience are the watchwords to heed. The railroad will be transformative in a way the trail alone can never be: Trails are an amenity for today; rails are an investment in the future. Save the rails.

Best wishes for the holidays, and a good crop for all the snow farmers out there.

Larry Roth lives in Ravena.


(1) http://www.businessinsider.com/wind-power-trains-in-netherlands-2017-6

(2) http://www.alstom.com/press-centre/2017/03/alstoms-hydrogen-train-coradia-ilint-first-successful-run-at-80-kmh/

(3) http://www.solutionaryrail.org

(4) http://steelinterstate.org

(5) http://www.businesstravelnews.com/Transportation/Ground/Amtrak-Ridership-Hits-Record-Levels-in-FY-2017(6) https://www.timesunion.com/business/article/Berkshires-groups-push-for-seasonal-rail-service-12413627.php

(7) https://www.orlandoweekly.com/Blogs/archives/2017/12/18/brightline-train-gets-final-federal-approval-to-connect-orlando-to-miami

(8) https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/34964/20171218/north-country-at-work-all-aboard-the-snow-train-webb-s-transformation-from-logging-town-to-winter-wonderland(9) https://www.bizjournals.com/denver/news/2017/02/14/winter-park-express-an-eye-popping-success-amtrak.html

(10) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enterprise,_Alabama